I had never heard of Agdam, Azerbaijan, and chances are you probably haven’t either. Agdam doesn’t have much history: it was founded less than 300 years ago, its location is of very little importance and nothing really significant ever happened there…. Until 1993, that is, when the town came under siege during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. Forty thousand people were run out of town when Karabakh-Armenian forces shelled the little town without mercy. This tragedy highlights the perils of war, but one can’t call it surprising – Azerbaijan borders Georgia, Armenia, Russia, and Iran; hardly a calm part of the world. Eighteen years later the town sits vacant, still a part of the Armenian buffer zone.
Agdam was founded in the late 1700’s but not officially granted city status until 1828. The chief industry was butter, wine, and several machinery factories. Why was Agdam a target of war? Even though the town had no major military presence or importance, it was the capital of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which was central to two warring countries. The Nagorno-Karabakh area is a small landlocked region within the West side of Azerbaijan that wanted independence from Azerbaijan and the U.S.S.R. Neighboring Armenia supported the rebellious Karabakh forces, citing the area had been part of the ancient Armenian kingdom going back to the 4th century B.C. Not all in the Nagorno-Karabakh region consider themselves of Armenian heritage, however, and a centuries-old claim to territory proved to be the root of the conflict. (click thumbnails to enlarge)
Although the region has been constantly embroiled in a tug-of-war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the conflict came to a head from June to August of 1993. Azerbaijan was using Agdam as a regional defensive base to protect its flank from the Armenian forces. Armenia – thinking Azerbaijan was going to launch an offensive from Agdam – enlisted the support of regional Karabakh forces to fight back. Agdam, the capital of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, was the primary target. Armenia’s strategy employed a “scorched earth” policy; if they could not have the region, they’d make it unlivable for anyone.
In the summer, tens of thousands of Armenian and Karabakh troops swept through the Nagorno-Karabakh region with the intent to destroy every town. What the fighting itself didn’t destroy, the Armenian forces finished off with heavy artillery afterward. In order to prevent the recapture of Agdam by Azerbaijan, the Armenians proceeded to shell, bomb, and blow up most of the remaining abandoned structures. Their goal was to render the city useless and prevent anyone from returning.
Well, mission accomplished.
According to reports, the fighting was extremely violent and no considerations were offered to the innocent citizens by the Karabakh forces. Violations of the rules of war were common: shooting of innocent men, women & children, hostage-taking, torture, and rape – for nothing other than being assumed it was a stronghold of Azerbaijan forces and a launching point for attack.
In the end there was no Azerbaijan offensive planned; it was a skeleton crew of low-morale Azerbaijani forces guarding the city against aggressors. Few actually fought to defend the city and desertion rates were high. No official numbers are on record, but some historians estimate nearly 10,000 soldiers, militia, and civilians died in the fighting. Those that could, fled, and by the end of the summer over 120,000 civilians had left the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
After Agdam was taken by Karabakh forces, they proceeded to obliterate the empty town with artillery and endless gunfire. The Karabakh forces only left the Aghdam Mosque standing. This was done on purpose: the Armenians use it as a cowshed to add insult and disgrace to those conquered.
Once satisfied with their demolition, the Karabakh troops proceeded to destroy the other regional cities of Fizuli, Jebrail, and Zangelan. By the end of the summer, Azerbaijan had lost five regions to the Armenian-Karabakh forces. The Nagorno-Karabakh region immediately claimed independence following the conflict, although it was not (and has never been) officially recognized by anyone other than Armenia.
Over time Agdam remained vacant, with brave looters sneaking in from time to time being the only signs of life. The most popular item to loot? Building materials.
Today, the only part of Agdam that lives on is its soccer team. After the conflict, the team moved elsewhere but retained the Agdam association and heritage. To this day they still play in Azerbaijan’s premier league, representing Agdam even though no one has lived there for 18 years.
Satellite overhead image & map: click here
the Aghdam Mosque, now a cowshed: (thumbnails)